Bruce Ashford, professor of theology and culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
As American churches face an increasingly hostile and post-Christian culture, we must clearly define who we are and how we should approach our social and cultural contexts. As I see it, churches tend to choose one of three mindsets: the first mindset is the church as bomb shelter; the second is the church as ultimate fighter; and the third is the church as a preview of the kingdom. Each of the first two mindsets has grasped some important biblical truths, but applied them incorrectly, while the last mindset is one which applies them correctly.
The Church as Bomb Shelter
In a post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian context, many of us will be tempted to view the church as a bomb shelter. Our beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be castigated by the political and cultural elite, by the broader population, and even by many church leaders.
Under such an ideological assault, churches sometimes have a collective anxiety attack. Our dominant mood tends to be protective, conceiving the church as a bomb shelter protecting itself from aerial assault, or perhaps a monastery where one can withdraw from the contingencies of contemporary existence, or even better a perpetual yoga retreat where we can empty our minds of empirical realities.
Believers with this mentality have good intentions. They want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and therefore we should hold fast to what we have (Rev 3:11).
However, this mentality is misguided, arising from a timid fear of man, and is spurred more by secular wisdom than by biblical faith, by faithless fear than by Christian courage and vitality. It views the church as a walled city rather than a living being, as a safe deposit box rather than a conduit of spiritual power. It externalizes godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by manmade walls, rather than understanding that godlessness is a disease of the soul which can never be walled out. It tends toward legalism, publishing all manner of bans in order to build a “hedge” around the gospel.
The Church as an Ultimate Fighter
The Ultimate Fighter mentality shares much in common with the Bomb Shelter mentality, but deals with its anxiety in a different manner. It tends to view the church exclusively and comprehensively as fighters. The Fighters’ weapons are beliefs, feelings and values which are wielded in the name of spiritual warfare. Unlike those hiding in the bomb shelter, the Fighters venture forth into the surrounding society and culture, seeking awareness of its movements and creeds so that it might assault it with lethal force.
Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against what is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Eph 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12), resist the devil (Jms 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Cor 10:4-5).
However, this mentality is misguided to the extent that it wrongly applies the principles above. The fault of the Ultimate Fighter Church (UFC) is not that it wants to fight, but that it suggests that the entirety of the Christian life is nothing but war. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers, but those unbelievers are not only enemies of God: they are also drowning men in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the sick. The Christian life is surely a battle, but it is no less a journey, a joy, an adventure and a trust. In other words, the Christian must indeed fight, but that is not the only thing he does; his battling is done from within the broader context of the entire Christian life.
The Church as a Preview of the Kingdom
The best mindset for the church to take is one in which the church is a preview of God’s coming kingdom. In the midst of unbelief and even persecution, we determine to live our lives as seamless tapestries of word and deed. We proclaim Christ and the gospel with our lips (word) and we promote Christ and the gospel with our lives (deed). In so doing, the church’s corporate life “previews” a future era when we will live together with Christ on the new heavens and earth, when we will flourish in our relationship to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation.
One way of describing the proper mindset is to say that the church is always pointing in five directions. We look upward toward God, showing the world that God alone—rather than idols such as sex, money and power—is worthy of worship. We look inward to our own corporate church life, seeking to love each other in a way that will compel outsiders to want to be a part of our Christ-centered community. We look backward toward creation, seeking to live the way God designed us to live when he created us. We look forward to the end times, when we will live in perfect relationship with God and with each other. We look outward to the nations, inviting them to embrace Christ by believing on the gospel.
Under this view, every aspect of life is ripe with potential for witness. If Christ is Lord over everything, then we can do everything in our lives in a way that is shaped toward Christ. I like the way the great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, when he wrote, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”
Absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered on Sunday morning for worship, but also as the church scattered into the world in our work, leisure, and community life. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts such as music, literature, cinema and architecture; the sciences for example biology, physics and sociology; the public square including journalism, politics and economics; as well as the academy of schools, universities and seminaries.
When we as the church live our lives in such a way that everything we do and say points to God, our combined witness serves as an attractive preview of God’s coming Kingdom. In that kingdom, there will be no more pain or tears, no more sin or the consequences of sin. In that kingdom, we will be in right relationship with God, with each other and with all of creation. There is no greater calling in life than to live as a preview of that kingdom.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Southeastern Baptist Magazine, which highlighted Intersect (the ON program at SEBTS) on the cover and in several articles.